On how human encounters with my therapist facilitated transformative work
“I found myself sitting differently in the chair across from Mal.”
In my first semester of college, I had an assignment to interview someone who was in a career path that I could see myself following. I chose my therapist — we’ll call her Mal. She was familiar and, by that point, woven into the fabric of my life. We’d been seeing each other for six years, most of my adolescence. Likewise, hers was a career path to which I felt connected — knew what questions to ask. She was also very easy to get ahold of on short notice.
So, the career interview commenced. As I prompted her with questions, she said something that resonated with me then and has resonated with me at different junctures since then,“Ultimately, when pursuing this field, keep in mind that the end result is to help people, not to pathologize them.”
In the end, hearing that did not move me toward becoming a licensed professional (I am not a clinician today, nor do I plan to become one). However, in my ear, it had the sparkle of, “Oh man, there’s more to this…” and rang on the edge of many “ahas!” to come later in living.
That statement put language to how I wanted to feel in her office and all the time, for that matter — helped, not pathologized. At the time, it was difficult to feel the difference between the two as I had always felt pathologized in the “patient’s chair.” It wasn’t really anyone or anything that put this on me but was simply the way that I felt for much of my life in and out of the therapist’s office.
I had always seen Mal with a family member in tow. In this way, therapy always felt like a family affair and a way to “keep me in check.” There was a point at the beginning of my time in college that I made the decision to begin seeing Mal on my own. It was around the time of the interview, I believe. It seemed to be the first step in finding out what was actually important to me and what my needs actually were — navigating autonomy, familial enmeshment, and the like.
Beginning to see Mal on my own provided the space to cultivate something I had been lacking and did not really know I needed — humane encounters. I spent my days in a seized-up reactionary state and had, to varying degrees, for most of my life. As a result, encounters with people served as the landscape where reacting and seizing up took place. At the point I decided to see Mal on my own, my ways of going from moment to moment were simply not working; fear, sadness, and disillusionment that were always in the background rose to the surface and became intolerable. Prompted by a need to feel differently in my body, I began to do the work to actually feel differently by building a box of tools that worked for me; finding things that actually worked was a first-time affair.
The underpinning of “what worked” was providing the permission for myself, in the micromovements of my day, to ask gentle questions and create space to bring in practices that would make way for me to see/ feel differently. This involved much experimentation. As I began to collect solutions from trying different modalities and bits of wisdom that I could put into practice, the toolbox began to form.
The result of using the toolbox was moving me from reactive states to more grounded states — a new kind of navigating the world. What I did not expect from touching those grounded states was the feeling of being connected, not only to myself, but to other people. In the midst of doing this work, I found myself sitting differently in the chair across from Mal.
There were moments where Mal would share her experience, humorous things, hard things, and inconsequential things. I noticed how I felt when I heard these. I felt, for once, not on the defense and sometimes even comforted. Perhaps, it was that I was hearing her differently, or perhaps she was sharing more. It may have been the combination of the two, but the result on my end was a sense of feeling connected to something that was safe rather than a threat. The sense was that it was safe to share and explore what was happening, rather than to chastise or have to change it. This was new to me.
Mal would also often ask questions — questions that did not necessarily have answers. It seemed to me that she was genuinely wondering and figuring things, as I was genuinely wondering and figuring things. Having always had the sense of answers being shoved down my throat, having the opportunity to wonder and not have answers was valuable. We were co-wondering. As I did more work on my own, the processing with Mal took the form of opportunities to ask questions and process with a fellow human.
What I remember from Mal’s office that is helpful today is having the space for moments of feeling human next to someone who could ask questions and share experiences just like I was doing. Likewise, having the person across from me also not know the answers gave me the sacred space to make sense of things in a way that was manageable in my mind, to form a sense of feeling whole inside myself. For me, that was the need at the time and still the need today. What I experienced with Mal informs how I interact with people today. This means cultivating opportunities where I can share my experience, listen to another’s experience, and be curious alongside someone.
“There will always be a need for this profession because people will continue to need human contact and support as this world becomes more disconnected. As people become more anxious and stressed, this is the one place they have to pay attention and contemplate.” — Mal
It is four years since my interview with Mal, and today I do the wordsome work for TPN.Health writing content, engaging on social media, and helping valuable conversations to happen. I am excited to be a turning wheel of an organization whose work is facilitating a space where clinicians can create encounters that breed actual solutions through clinical fit. This is work that will allow people to have encounters with clinicians that are humane and helpful in the long-term. Likewise, it is work that makes sense in the context of my personal experience, as having a set of meaningful encounters with my clinician informs how I am moving forward today.
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